Is it ever as good as the first time? (Part 2)

30/10/2018 Off By Deborah Welsh

Should you go back? Did you go back? I did and it was just wonderful. So, go grab a coffee and enjoy a few minutes to yourself and soak up the Tuscan sun with me.

Last month I shared some of my holiday experiences with you and we talked about whether or not going back to a place is ever as good as the first time.

I’m just back from a return visit to a place I stayed in two years ago and I admit, I was a little nervous before I left. I was worried that it might not live up to the expectations I had put on this resort and the expectations of my family were riding high too. My fears were unfounded. I have just spent two glorious weeks at what is now one of my favourite hotels in the world. That’s high praise indeed as I have stayed in quite a few crackers in my time and I’ve been very lucky to have travelled so much – and hey, I ain’t planning on stopping anytime soon. Travel and holidays have changed for me though. In my younger days, all I wanted was scorching sunshine, a nice pool and a sun lounger that I didn’t have to get up at 6am to secure with my towel. I was the epitome of the sun, sea and sangria brigade. Nowadays, I want a different experience. I want lakes, mountains, culture, cities, good food and wine. Sure, I still look for great weather and I still punctuate my adventures with a few hours here and there by the pool. The best of both worlds if you will – and my latest trip gave me just that.

The Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco Resort lies in the heart of the Tuscan countryside, perched on a dramatic hillside overlooking the Serchio Valley. Despite the absolute luxury and efficiency with which this place is run, it feels very remote and the view is so perfect, it feels like you’ve magically been sucked into a fine old oil painting. This is how I felt when I stayed here in 2016 and this year was no different. As I started to realise that this lush Italian paradise was to be mine for two whole weeks my heart stopped for a second as its beauty unravelled before me but then it jolted back into action and started to beat a little faster the minute I walked through the doors. Everyone remembered us and we were welcomed back like old family never mind old friends. It was the warmest and most genuine reception anyone could hope for after a long day’s travelling and a super early morning start.
After we all hugged, kissed (on both cheeks, remember, this is Italy!), we were shown to our room. You’ll never guess – yip, the same delightful suite we had stayed in the first time.

With its dazzling views that I had looked out on to so many nights and the familiarity of the layout and décor, it actually felt like I had come home. In fact, it almost felt like the two years that had passed, hadn’t passed at all. It was as if we had never left and time had stood still. It was all rather dreamy and special to be honest. If you’ve read any of my previous articles, you’ll know that Italy has a profound effect on me and this country seems to allow me to live the best life and be the best version of me that there is. How can you fail to be happy looking at dramatic mountains, beautiful countryside, spending quality time with the people you love and sharing a little bit of your life with your new-found friends who are lucky enough to live here? Life takes on a different perspective when you’re in this bubble and we all know the reality will bite the minute you set foot on the plane but for those two weeks, I just go with it and let myself get caught up in Italy’s magic spell that she never fails to cast over me.

The Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco resort will tick a lot of boxes for discerning travellers too. You can expect all the charm and beauty of the Tuscan countryside, perfect and authentic Italian hospitality yet with all the slick precision and class of an International/American chain. Cool, sophisticated decor throughout, the interior has a calming and relaxing feel to it. However, one look out of the window and there’s no doubt you are in Bella Italia! Rather like a harmonious blend of old and new.

Now you know how happy this place make me, and I’m certain you’d love it too, dear reader, so let me tell you what you can get up to while you’re here. As I mentioned, the hotel and resort are pretty much in the middle of nowhere (albeit a very beautiful and seductive nowhere) but nonetheless, you can’t really walk anywhere. I would recommend hiring a car – if your nerves can take the hairpin bends and narrow roads. We didn’t bother and simply took advantage of the hotel’s shuttle service which dropped us at the local train station when we wanted a change of scene and pace.

From Barga Gallicano you can take the train to the lovely city of Lucca which is about 40 minutes away. Lucca is the connecting hub for pretty much anywhere you want to go. From here you can reach the coastal resort of Viareggio for a day at the beach or for culture vultures like me you can take a train to many of the big towns and cities such as Pistoia, Pisa, Florence and Montecatini Terme. You can even go to Rome if you don’t mind a few hours travel.

The walled city of Lucca is a joy in its own right though, so don’t be too quick to jump platforms and head away from this atmospheric spot. Perhaps not as well-trodden as other Italian cities but equally impressive. During the summer months, visitors and locals alike can enjoy open air concerts and even if you only visit Lucca as a day trip, you can easily take in some of the highlights in just a few hours. One very special place that deserves a mention is the [Puccini Museum]( – birthplace of the composer Giacomo Puccini. The museum is actually the home that he was born in, spending his early years here. Within the museum there are priceless objects that once belonged to him including his Steinway & Sons piano that he used to compose the opera Turandot. There’s also paintings, photos and precious documents such as the working drafts of some of maestro’s scores. My teenage son is a pianist and music student so the magic of where we were was not lost on him. In fact, I think he would have loved the chance to tinkle those ivories!
Famous composers aside, Lucca is just a charming place to visit and inside its maze of little streets and alleyways are some fabulous shops and stylish boutiques as well as a great choice of tempting eateries, bars and cafes. I was in a few of them! Two favourite pit-stops were Caffe Manon Lescaut which is close to the Puccini museum and the delightful Turandot Café which sits in the shadow of the magnificent Chiesa San Michele in Foro. This breath-taking piece of architecture took up many frames in my camera and I also spent some reflective ‘me’ time within it’s cool interior.

This time around, we didn’t trawl about as much as did on our first visit to Tuscany. We were all ready for a proper break and the heat this year was truly intense which isn’t ideal for exploring busy cities. That said, we did do a day in Florence. What a beauty she is. However, the heat and the crowds meant I didn’t get to see much of her famous treasures so that city is now ear-marked for a visit at a much quieter and cooler time of year.
I mentioned in part 1 that despite going back to places that you think you know, there’s always something new to see or discover.

Barga, the closest little town to the hotel resort is a good example of this. Whereby this sleepy hamlet isn’t exactly the epicentre of the world, there’s plenty going on but something I noticed this time around was the strong sense of community. Every other night we went down into the old town for a wander and some dinner and I couldn’t help but notice how many locals came out for a drink and a catch up with the other residents. I didn’t really see this before but there it was…night after night, a happy bunch of neighbours meeting in the tiny little square, babbling away happily about family, the news, the weather and I couldn’t help but acknowledge this feeling of contentment that filled the air. This was the simple life and I wanted to be a part of it. There were no big flashy shops, no rush, no stress, just everything they needed in their peaceful little town. I also noticed things I hadn’t spotted before, such as pretty doorways, alleys and the odd café that I don’t recall being in. I don’t think they were new, I was just seeing more of the place and paying more attention the second time around. I even went into a wine shop that I hadn’t been in before – how on earth did I miss that?

Something funny happened on our first night back in Barga. Remember it has been two years since we were here. We went for dinner in a lovely little restaurant called Caffe Capretz where we had spent a few nights on our last trip. Lo and behold, the waitress remembered us and again, we were greeted like old friends. Bless her, she even remembered the wine we had chosen back in 2016! That’s either a good memory, good customer service or maybe it’s because we had so much of it! Anyway, it felt really special as she must see thousands of faces and take thousands of orders, year in year out. Straight away we felt right at home. So much so we went back a few times and didn’t even have to book ahead. It was like they were expecting us.
Barga itself hadn’t changed and neither had the town’s vibe. I suspect this will be a place that will stay the same for centuries and I really hope it does. The rest of the world can do what it wants but it’s nice to know some things remain relatively untouched by the speedy progress and evolution of the 21st century.

My feelings have changed slightly since I wrote part 1. In a way, I was saying it would be a shame to go back to a place time after time and not see the big wide world that is out there but there’s definitely a case for going back to somewhere you love and to somewhere you can truly relax and unwind the minute you’ve unpacked your suitcase.
Yes, there’s no doubt I will be going somewhere new on my next trip but I also know for sure that I will be back in Barga someday and I will be back at the Renaissance Tuscany hotel someday too. Barga, don’t ever change, you’re perfect just the way you are.

Travel Facts:

Deborah travelled with British Airways from Glasgow to Pisa via London Gatwick
• Book your flights with British Airways

• The Renaissance Tuscany Il Ciocco resort can be booked direct

• Taxi transfers from Pisa Airport to Barga can be arranged via the hotel or you can take a train from Pisa to Barga Gallicano (via Lucca) and get the hotel to call a taxi to pick you up from there.

City breaks to Lucca and Florence can be booked with Expedia